Black people are everywhere and there is no universal Black experience. Various titles, including Johny Pitts’s Afropean and Katy Massey’s Are We Home Yet?, are interested in documenting Black experiences that are less mainstream and visible in the popular media. From Brazil and Haiti to Rwanda and Madagascar, travel the world via this list of coming-of-age novels in English translation. Though you may have already heard of titles like Alain Mabanckou’s Black Moses (Petit Piment in the original French) which was longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize, this list spotlights 15 lesser-known coming-of-age novels in English translation, bringing together the stories of Black youths from all four corners and moving away from the dominance of Anglophone voices.

 

By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel

Original Language: Spanish

Year: 2014

Publisher: And Other Stories

Plot: By Night The Mountain Burns recounts the narrator’s childhood on a remote island off the West African coast, living with his mysterious grandfather, several mothers and no fathers. We learn of a dark chapter in the island’s history: a bush fire destroys the crops, then hundreds perish in a cholera outbreak. Superstition dominates: now the islanders must sacrifice their possessions to the enraged ocean god. What of their lives will they manage to save? Whitmanesque in its lyrical evocation of the island, Ávila Laurel’s writing builds quietly, through the oral rhythms of traditional storytelling, into gripping drama worthy of an Achebe or a García Márquez.

The Sun On My Head by Geovani Martins

Original Language: Portuguese

Year: 2019

Publisher: Farar, Straus and Giroux

Plot: In The Sun on My Head, Geovani Martins recounts the experiences of boys growing up in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro in the early years of the twenty-first century. Drawing on his childhood and adolescence, Martins uses the rhythms and slang of his neighbourhood dialect to capture the texture of life in the slums, where every day is shadowed by ubiquitous drug culture, the constant threat of the police, and the confines of poverty, violence, and racial oppression. All uncompromising in their realism and yet diverse in narrative form, some stories explore the changes that occur when militarised police occupy the favelas in the lead-up to the World Cup, the cycles of violence in the narcotics trade, and the feelings of invisibility that define the realities of so many in Rio’s underclass. The Sun on My Head is a work of great talent and sensitivity, a daring evocation of life in the favelas by a rising star rooted in the community he portrays.

The Abandoned Baobab by Ken Bugul

Original Language: French 

Year: 2008

Publisher: University of Virginia

Plot: Abandoned by her mother and sent to live with relatives in Dakar, the author tells of being educated in the French colonial school system, where she comes gradually to feel alienated from her family and Muslim upbringing, growing enamoured with the West. Academic success gives her the opportunity to study in Belgium, which she looks upon as a “promised land.” There she is objectified as an exotic creature, however, and she descends into promiscuity, alcohol and drug abuse, and, eventually, prostitution. Her return to Senegal, which concludes the book, presents her with a past she cannot reenter, a painful but necessary realisation as she begins to create a new life there.

Dance of the Volcano by Marie Vieux-Chauvet

Original Language: French 

Year: 2017

Publisher: Archipelago

Plot: Dance on the Volcano tells the story of two sisters growing up in a culture that swings heavily between decadence and poverty, sensuality and depravity. One sister, because of her singing ability, is able to enter into the white colonial society otherwise generally off-limits to people of colour. Closely examining a society sagging under the white supremacy of the French colonist rulers, Dance on the Volcano is one of the only novels to closely depict the seeds and fruition of the Haitian Revolution, tracking an elaborate hierarchy of skin colour and class through the experiences of two young women.

That Hair by Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida

Original Language: Portuguese

Year: 2020

Publisher: Tin House

Plot: Mila is the Luanda-born daughter of a Black Angolan mother and a white Portuguese father. She arrives in Lisbon at the tender age of three and feels like an outsider from the jump. Through the lens of young Mila’s indomitably curly hair, her story interweaves memories of childhood and adolescence, family lore spanning four generations, and present-day reflections on the internal and external tensions of a European and African identity. It’s the story of coming of age as a black woman in a nation at the edge of Europe that is also rapidly changing, of being considered an outsider in one’s own country, and the impossibility of “returning” to a homeland one doesn’t in fact know.

Baho! by Roland Rugero

Original Language: French

Year: 2016

Publisher: Phoneme Media

Plot: When Nyamugari, an adolescent mute, attempts to ask a young woman in rural Burundi for directions to an appropriate place to relieve himself, his gestures are mistaken as premeditation for rape. To the young woman’s community, his fleeing confirms his guilt, setting off a chain reaction of pursuit, mob justice, and Nyamugari’s attempts at explanation. Young Burundian novelist Roland Rugero’s second novel Baho!, the first Burundian novel to ever be translated into English, explores the concepts of miscommunication and justice against the backdrop of war-torn Burundi’s beautiful green hillsides.

Small Country by Gaël Faye

Original Language: French

Year: 2018

Publisher: Hogarth

Plot: In 1992, Gabriel, ten years old, lives in Burundi in a comfortable expatriate neighbourhood with his French father, his Rwandan mother and his little sister, Ana. In this joyful idyll, Gabriel spends the better part of his time with his mischievous band of friends, in a tiny cul-de-sac, they have turned into their kingdom. But their peaceful existence will suddenly shatter when this small African country is brutally battered by history. In this magnificent coming-of-age story, Gael Faye describes an end of innocence and drives deep into the heart and mind of a young child caught in the maelstrom of history.

Return to the Enchanted Island by Johary Ravaloson

Original Language: French

Year: 2019

Publisher: Amazon Crossing

Plot: Named after the first man at the creation of the world in Malagasy mythology, Ietsy Razak was raised to perpetuate the glory of his namesake and expected to be as illuminated as his Great Ancestor. But in the chaos of modernity, his young life is marked only by restlessness, maddening insomnia, and adolescent apathy. When an unexpected tragedy ships him off to a boarding school in France, his trip to the big city is no hero’s journey. Ietsy loses himself in the immediate pleasures of body and mind. Weighed down by his privilege and the legacy of his name, Ietsy struggles to find a foothold. Only a return to the “Enchanted Island,” as Madagascar is lovingly known, helps Ietsy stumble toward his destiny. This award-winning retelling of Madagascar’s origin story offers a distinctly twenty-first-century perspective on the country’s place in an ever-more-connected world.

A Girl Called Eel by Ali Zamir

Original Language: French

Year: 2019

Publisher: Jacaranda

Plot: Anguille is a 17-year-old girl who leaves her rock on the archipelago of Comoros to lose herself at sea. She drifts between two states of mind and between two islands “in a hollow maze”, evoking her memories so as to forget nothing and so as to delay the inevitable outcome. Confronted with the pressing immediacy of imminent death, Anguille recounts the story of her whole life in one long, sustained breath, in a series of brief couplets. But what Anguille recounts, in an assured voice which heralds a shipwreck, is also something other than her life, something much deeper below the ground, or rather the sea, which has to do with the species and what is immemorial. A story told in a single sentence, A Girl Called Eel is a memorial, a reckoning, and a powerful narrative imbued with a prevailing sense of urgency.

Exile according to Julia by Gisèle Pineau

Original Language: French

Year: 2003

Publisher: University of Virginia

Plot: Gisele Pineau was born, and spent the first fourteen years of her life, in Paris. Her parents, originally from the island of Guadeloupe, were part of the massive transplantation of Antilleans to the metropole after World War II. Most had left their homeland hoping to improve their lives and their children’s prospects. Born French nationals, all theoretically enjoyed equal footing with the Parisian French. The colour of their skin, however, meant a far different reality for Pineau’s family and their fellow emigres. This critically acclaimed 1996 autobiographical novel, now available in its first English translation, explores the alienation of a girl and her grandmother contending with life between two identities.

Aya (Aya #1) by Marguerite Abouet

Original Language: French

Year: 2007

Publisher: Jonathan Cape

Plot: Ivory Coast, 1978. Family and friends gather at Aya’s house every evening to watch the country’s first television ad campaign promoting the fortifying effects of Solibra, “the strong man’s beer.” It’s a golden time, and the nation, too — an oasis of affluence and stability in West Africa — seems fueled by something wondrous. Who’s to know that the Ivorian miracle is nearing its end? In the sun-warmed streets of working-class Yopougon, aka Yop City, holidays are around the corner, the open-air bars and discos are starting to fill up, and trouble of a different kind is about to raise eyebrows. Aya tells the story of its nineteen-year-old heroine, the studious and clear-sighted Aya, her easygoing friends Adjoua and Bintou, and their meddling relatives and neighbours. It’s a breezy and wryly funny account of the desire for joy and freedom, and of the simple pleasures and private troubles of everyday life in Yop City.

Ponciá Vicêncio by Conceição Evaristo

Original Language: Portuguese

Publication Year: 2006

Publisher: Host

Plot: The story of a young Afro-Brazilian woman’s journey from the land of her enslaved ancestors to the emptiness of urban life. However, the generations of creativity, violence and family cannot be so easily left behind as Poncia is heir to a mysterious psychic gift from her grandfather. Does this gift have the power to bring Poncia back from the emotional vacuum and absolute solitude that has overtaken her in the city? Do the elemental forces of earth, air, fire and water mean anything in the barren urban landscape? A mystical story of family, dreams and hope by the most talented chronicler of Afro-Brazilian life writing today.

La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono

Original Language: Spanish

Year: 2018

Publisher: Feminist Press at CUNY

Plot: The first novel by an Equatorial Guinean woman to be translated into English, La Bastarda is the story of the orphaned teen Okomo, who lives under the watchful eye of her grandmother and dreams of finding her father. Forbidden from seeking him out, she enlists the help of other village outcasts: her gay uncle and a gang of “mysterious” girls reveling in their so-called indecency. Drawn into their illicit trysts, Okomo finds herself falling in love with their leader and rebelling against the rigid norms of Fang culture.

Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga

Original Language: French

Year: 2016

Publisher: Archipelago

Plot: Imagine being born into a world where everything about you — the shape of your nose, the look of your hair, the place of your birth — designates you as an undesirable, an inferior, a menace, no better than a cockroach, something to be driven away and ultimately exterminated. Imagine being thousands of miles away while your family and friends are brutally and methodically slaughtered. Imagine being entrusted by your parents with the mission of leaving everything you know and finding some way to survive, in the name of your family and your people. Scholastique Mukasonga’s Cockroaches is the story of growing up a Tutsi in Hutu-dominated Rwanda — the story of a happy child, a loving family, all wiped out in the genocide of 1994. 

The Infamous Rosalie by Evelyne Trouillot

Original Language: French

Year: 2013

Publisher: University of Nebraska

Plot: Lisette, a Saint-Domingue-born Creole slave and daughter of an African-born bossale, has inherited not only the condition of slavery but the traumatic memory of the Middle Passage as well. The stories told to her by her grandmother and godmother, including the horrific voyage aboard the infamous slave ship Rosalie, have become part of her own story, the one she tells in this haunting novel by the acclaimed Haitian writer Evelyne Trouillot. Inspired by the colonial tale of an African midwife who kept a cord of some seventy knots, each one marking a child she had killed at birth, the novel transports us back to Saint-Domingue, before it became Haiti. The year is 1750, and a rash of poisonings is sowing fear among the plantation masters, already unsettled by the unrest caused by Makandal, the legendary Maroon leader. Through this tumultuous time, Lisette struggles to maintain her dignity and to imagine a future for her unborn child.